A few weeks ago, a news report came out about how childhood hunger spikes during the summer when school is out of session and food-insecure children can no longer depend on school meals. (Since that news story came out, the Food Resource and Action Center (FRAC) has published its full report, which you can read here).
In response to the news item, Rush Limbaugh had a particularly offensive broadcast (although with El Rushbo, it’s kinda hard to make such distinctions) in which he opined that “one of the benefits of school being out [is] . . . your kids losing weight because they’re starving to death out there because there’s no school meal being provided” He then suggested, among other things, that hungry kids should Dumpster-dive for food. (More on the broadcast here.)
But it’s not just shock jocks like Limbaugh who take this stance that obesity and hunger can’t coexist. In an interview given by Chef Tom Colicchio about testifying in Congress last week on the child nutrition bill, he mentions that a member of the conservative Heritage Foundation, also testifying, made a similar comment. According to Colicchio, this person “said that if children are getting obese, then maybe we should stop feeding them.” [Ed. update: Since publishing this post, I tracked down the testimony in question (by Robert Rector, Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation) and, in fairness, it doesn't include this glib comment -- although that may have been Colicchio's takeaway impression, given that the Heritage Foundation opposes any increase in spending for child nutrition programs and uses obesity as one justification.]
I was curious about this statement, so I went to the Heritage Foundation website where I found position papers, including this one, that point to obesity in America as proof positive that hunger must be greatly exaggerated — and, of course, as a justification for limiting federal funding to feed the poor. The Heritage Foundation also had a lot of fun with the supposed “flip flop” created by Michelle Obama’s efforts to curb childhood obesity, which are taking place as President Obama seeks to make good on his campaign pledge to end childhood hunger by 2015. The paper asks, “So which is it? Is the real problem here hunger, or is it obesity?” Other conservative commentators have since jumped on the Heritage Foundation’s flip-flop bandwagon.
To me, it seems self-evident that hunger and obesity can co-exist among the poor. However, to get my facts straight, I did a little research.
First, here’s a great story that ran this past spring in the New York Times on what the writer cleverly calls “The Bronx Paradox,” i.e, the fact that The Bronx has New York City’s highest rate of obesity (an 85 percent higher risk of being obese than people in Manhattan) while nearly 37 percent of residents in the South Bronx said they lacked money to buy food at some point in the past 12 months. The report cites all the reasons you would expect for such a finding: a lack of full service, reasonably-priced supermarkets with seasonal fruits and vegetables, a predominance of restaurants serving greasy, fried food, and the fact that poor people often work multiple jobs and longer hours, so they’re more likely to eat on the run and have less time to exercise.
My new friends at FRAC gave me even more information, citing all the reasons above, as well as the fact that:
- those who are eating less or skipping meals to stretch food budgets may overeat when food does become available, resulting in chronic ups and downs in food intake that can contribute to weight gain;
- the poor have limited access to health care;
- lower income neighborhoods have fewer resources for physical activity (such as bike paths and recreation centers);
- lower-income children spend less time being active during PE classes, are less likely to have recess at school, and are less likely to participate in organized sports;
- there are high levels of stress among low-income families due to the financial and emotional pressures of food insecurity, low-wage work, lack of access to health care, inadequate and long-distance transportation, poor housing, and neighborhood violence; and
- low-income youth and adults are exposed to disproportionately more marketing and advertising for obesity-promoting products that encourage the consumption of unhealthful foods and discourage physical activity.
It’s easier, of course, to deny the existence of hunger than it is to do something about it, and when “doing something” means increasing federal spending, you can be sure that there will be those on the far right who will look for every justification not to. But we can’t let the issue of obesity give political cover to those who want to deny the fact that, every day in America, kids are going hungry.
And sorry, Rush, but Dumpsters are just not an option.